So many books I read these days seem to come to me rather fortuitously -- in other words, I find them in charity shops or on other peoples' bookshelves -- but here is one I actually ordered. I can't now remember why I did this, but I think I must have read a review of it on someone's blog. I'd never read, or even heard of, Peter Robinson before, though I now know there is a TV series featuring his DC Banks. I suppose what must have attracted me to the novel was the fact that it is partly set during the second world war, and that it features a village which was vacated, submerged as a reservoir, and then re-emerges decades later, in the exceptionally dry summer which gives the book its title. It all sounded appealing and intriguing, and so, in many ways, it was.
But. For some reason it didn't really grab me, not quite sure why, but perhaps it will emerge as I try to write about it ("How do I know what I think till I see what I say?" as EM Forster said, or maybe it was WH Auden, or somebody quite different). The plot kicks off promisingly enough -- the village of Hobb's End has emerged from the waters of the reservoir, mostly a heap of ruins covered with mud, though the shapes of the houses still remain. A boy goes to play inside one of the houses, and discovers a skeleton. The police are called in and rather rapidly ascertain that this is a mid-20th century person, and even more quickly discover their identity -- it is beautiful Gloria Stringer, who had appeared in Hobbs End at the start of the war and married one of the inhabitants. DC Banks is called in to take the case, aided by Annie Cabbott, an extremely attractive young woman detective. They investigate, and eventually discover the identity of the murderer. They also start a relationship which has its ups and downs.
Running parallel with all this is an autobiographical account by a woman who once lived in Hobbs End, and who we soon discover was the sister of Gloria's husband. It soon becomes clear that this woman changed her identity many years earlier and is now a hugely successful crime novelist. Her account tells us things that Bank and Cabbott don't know, but how much of it is true? We learn much of the wartime history of the village as it appeared to Gwen, who was still a teenager at the time -- the blackout, the privations, the dances, and the welcome influx of GIs with their gifts of whiskey, cigarettes and nylons.
So -- for a start I found it all rather predictable. I was in no doubt at all from the beginning about the identity of the autobiographical writer, and I'm not sure how soon this was supposed to become clear. I didn't actually guess who did the murder, but I wasn't really surprised, and to be honest by then I didn't really care, as I found the 1940s Hobbs End inhabitants an unattractive bunch. I think we were supposed to be sympathetic to Gloria, who had a rough start in London's East End, and had abandoned an illegitimate baby hoping he would have a better life, but I couldn't really muster much interest. I didn't care, either, about Gwen, aka Famous Crime Novelist, whose dark secret was obvious to me from the beginning. As for Banks and Annie, I wished them well, and quite liked Annie, who was vegetarian and practised yoga and meditation. But I expect their love affair will have foundered in the next of Robinson's novels, though I doubt if I shall bother to find out
Still -- "A wonderful novel" proclaims Michael Connelly on the cover. "A powerfully moving work", says Ian Rankin inside. So there's no accounting for tastes, and you might love it.